It’s summertime, and I am five years old. In the bedroom that I share with my older brother in our small apartment in Chicago, I awake to the sound of my father’s sobbing, a sound I have never heard before. A telegram has informed him that his brother Anselm, who lives in New York, has died unexpectedly of a heart attack at the age of forty-five. It’s the first time I have ever seen my father cry. I climb onto his lap, frightened and upset, trying to comfort him.
Despite the many losses he has known, my father is usually optimistic and positive, a cheerful man with a wry sense of humor. I’m always giggling at his jokes, although I have no idea what most of them mean, especially the ones in German and Polish.
Anselm was the only one of my father’s four siblings to survive the war–the last living link to the family and life they left behind in Europe. As a child, I don’t yet understand what this loss represents: a final end to my father’s prewar world, a last connection to his childhood and his past. What cruel irony for his brother to escape the Holocaust and survive the war, only to die at a relatively young age in this new country.
Now it’s 1964, I’m 18, a college student home for the summer. My parents have just moved to Brooklyn after a disastrous two-year attempt at living in Florida. I’ve become the designated driver for them; my mother never learned to drive, and my father is in failing health and no longer has confidence in his driving abilities. He asks me one day, when my mother is at work, to drive him to the cemetery where his brother Anselm is buried. He hasn’t been there in many years.
I’ve never visited a cemetery and have no idea what to expect. This one is halfway out on Long Island, an hour’s drive from Brooklyn. As we approach the big iron gate, I am shocked that the place looks ancient, overcrowded, neglected. No beautiful green expanses of lawn here, just jumbled, closely-packed headstones, some broken, half-hidden. Searching for Anselm’s plot through a labyrinth of deeply-shaded walkways, we stop to read barely legible Hebrew names and dates on crooked grave markers. I feel the weight of memories buried here as we find the small crumbling headstone that marks Anselm’s grave.
Minutes pass slowly as my father and I stand in silence, tearfully contemplating this last reminder of his brother’s life. I don’t know what to say, cannot find words that feel right, my voice is caught in my throat. All I can do is take my father’s hand, trying to convey that I understand his pain, although I’m sure that I don’t. We search carefully for a few small stones to place gently on Anselm’s headstone, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Holding tightly to one another’s hand, we find our way back along dark and winding gravel paths.
My father dies quite suddenly, three years later. He is sixty-four; I am twenty-one. The day at the cemetery replays in my mind. I wish I would have had more curiosity about his life, asked better and deeper questions while I had the chance. A couple of years after his death, I move to Tel Aviv. While taking a nap in my apartment one sunny afternoon, I have a dream about him: we are riding on a bus together, on a wide boulevard near the Mediterranean, talking and laughing, when suddenly and without warning, he pulls the cord to signal the driver. The bus slows and stops, and he gets off. Puzzled, the other passengers and I descend from the bus and see that my father is lying in the street, dead. We stand calmly in silence for a long time, looking, then reluctantly we climb back on the bus and it continues on its way.
Judith Teich, a retired behavioral health services researcher and clinical social worker, earned a BA in English from Boston University and an MSW from New York University. Her personal essays have been published in JAMA, the Washington Post, and most recently in the Christian Science Monitor and Moment Magazine.